Unidentified Artist (New England), Low Blanket Chest, ca. 1830, Paint on wood, 22 x 41-1/4 x 18-1/2", American Folk Art Museum, gift of The Lipman Family Foundation in honor of Jean and Howard Lipman, Photograph: Gavin Ashworth.
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (1910–1983), Animals Appear as Plants — Dwellers of the Sea from Folk Art Revealed, 1956, Paint on corrugated cardboard, 21 x 24", American Folk Art Museum, Blanchard-Hill Collection, gift of M. Anne Hill and Edward V. Blanchard Jr., Photograph Gavin Ashworth.
Seneque Obin (1893–1977, Haiti), Les Amis (Friendship), ca. 1950-1955, Oil on board, 20 x 15", American Folk Art Museum, gift of Maurice C. and Patricia L. Thompson, Photograph: Gavin Ashworth.
Nek Chand (b. 1924, Chandigarh, India), Female Figure Wearing Sari, ca. 1965–1970, Tinted concrete over metal armature with shells, 33 x 6 x 6", American Folk Art Museum, gift of the artist with additional support from Charlotte Frank, Kathryn Morrison, Cheryl Rivers, and Steve Simons, Photograph August Bandal.
Richard Dial (b. 1955, Bessemer, Alabama), The Comfort of Moses and the Ten Commandments, 1988, Steel and wood with hemp and enamel, 57 x 33 x 32-1/2", American Folk Art Museum purchase made possible with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Metropolitan Life Foundation, Photograph: Bard Wrisley.
American Folk Art Museum
45 West 53rd Street
Folk Art Revealed
Folk Art Revealed, an ongoing installation of the American Folk Art Museum's permanent collection, opened November 16, 2004. The exhibition explores the nature of folk art through four themes applied to a diverse range of artwork from the museum's rich and extensive holdings, many of which are new acquisitions and have never before been on view. These four perspectives — symbolism, utility, individuality and community-infuse all of folk art and speak to essential aspects of both traditional and unconventional expressions.
Three centuries of art offer a seldom seen holistic view of the field, from New England portraits and painted furniture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to unorthodox works created by contemporary self-taught artists from the United States and abroad. It quickly becomes apparent that many — if not most — of the artworks in the exhibition respond to more than one of these four themes. For example, all four ideas are manifested in the furniture, rug, and boxes of the Shakers, as well as in the fantastic scroll-like paintings of self-taught 20th century artist Henry Darger.
Stacy C. Hollander, senior curator and director of exhibitions, and Brooke Davis Anderson, curator and director of The Contemporary Center, have selected approximately 150 artworks that present provocative visual juxtapositions and contextual information. This framework underscores the vital role folk art plays both as a carrier of cultural heritage and a synthesis of traditional ideas and new influences. It is key to an understanding of folk art as an expression that emerges from patterns of living, at times affirming stability, at others resisting convention.
Symbolism Some of the most visually potent examples of folk art are those that speak through symbolic language. In these artworks symbols are used as shorthand for revealing complex meanings through graphic representations. Patriotic symbols range from the iconic Flag Gate to the contemporary Freedom Quilt created by Jessie Telfair in response to losing her job after she attempted to register to vote in Georgia in the 1960s. The use of symbols can be inclusive, expressing widely recognized ideas and experiences, such as the mid-19th century Tooth trade sign that clearly identifies the profession of a dentist. The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, 1970-75, a complex, carved wood relief by Josephus Farmer, a chronicler of historic and religious imagery, is a masterly composition depicting symbolic architectural images.
Symbols can also be exclusionary, as in the esoteric systems of secret societies like the Freemasons. The Masonic Plaque, in the form of a Master's chart, employs various ideogrammatic devices to illustrate Masonic precepts. Les Amis, a recent acquisition by 20th century Haitian artist Seneque Obin, uses Masonic symbols while also expressing the hope for positive relations between Haiti and the US.
When symbols pass from common usage or stem from a personal vision, we no longer hold the key to understanding their original meanings. Works become mysterious and subject to new interpretations.
Utility The earliest material that we now term folk art was frequently utilitarian in nature, made to meet the basic demands of daily life. Objects such as furniture and household wares received painted and carved embellishments that sometimes served a function, such as the protection of wood surfaces. These decorations might reflect the transmission of cultural ideas, prevailing trends, and availability of materials. They were also an expression of the creative desires of their makers, and elevated a mundane object into a work of art. Some of the most utilitarian forms in an early American household were among the most beautiful. The heavy twill-woven Crewel Bedcover is gorgeously embroidered with brilliantly colored woolen yarns in floral patterns. Made primarily in Massachusetts and New York, such early bedcovers provided vibrancy and much needed warmth in harsh winters.
The idea of utility is often associated with traditional folk art forms, but 20th- and 21st-century works of art demonstrate the endurance of utility as an impulse for creative expression. The whimsical, anthropomorphic wrought-iron chair The Comfort of Moses and The Ten Commandments, 1988, by Richard Dial plays with the functionality of a utilitarian form. Part of the impressively creative Dial family of artists from Bessemer, Alabama, Dial started his business in metal patio furniture while working as a machinist at Standard Pullman. His furniture combines utility with individualistic decorative flair.
Folk art is an effective means of reinforcing conventions, but it also provides a powerful forum for individual expression. At first glance, it may seem that the work of contemporary self-taught artists is the most individualistic, even idiosyncratic. However, individuality is found in the unique signature every artist brings to his/her work, even when creating within a conventional form, tradition, or medium. At times this singular voice is expressed through a sense of whimsy as seen in the 19th century watercolor Man Feeding a Bear an Ear of Corn, or through a highly developed aesthetic identity. Other works, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, reveal a distinctive sensibility that is derived from an artist's strong personal convictions or visions, or from a life lived in isolation.
The towering architectural model, Encyclopedic Palace of the World, ca. 1950s, by Marino Auriti of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, is a recent acquisition and is on exhibit for the first time. A self-taught artist, Auriti's audacious concept was to create a museum to house all of mankind's greatest achievements. This model, composed of seven tiers of a lathe-turned skyscraper made of mixed woods, metal, plastic (including hair combs), and celluloid, and topped by television antennae, probably took three years to build. It is on a scale of 1:200, which means that if it were actually built the palace would stand 136 stories and 2,322 feet, which would have made it the tallest building in the world at the time Auriti imagined it.
At times, the traditional and the contemporary manifestations of individual expression resonate in unexpected, almost startling ways. The flamboyant painted decoration seen on a 19th century New England pine Chest of Drawers suggests that this particular treatment, with its vivid yellows, greens, and browns, was a fanciful abstraction of the colors of fall foliage, rather then an attempt to imitate the look of more expensive woods.
The dynamic effect of fanlike motifs on the painted chest was probably achieved through a technique in which the wet paint was manipulated by hand or through a chemical reaction. It bears a strong resemblance to the hand-manipulated, wet-on-wet apocalyptic painting Animals Appear as Plants-Dwellers of the Sea, 1956, by the visionary artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, illustrating aspects of both visual and technical continuity.
Community A community is not merely a function of proximity in a particular neighborhood. Communities are formed through a variety of circumstances whose common bonds may be of time, place, belief, or experience. In folk art, this is reflected in the wide range of objects that emerge from the shared system that shapes a community. These expressions may point to a common cultural heritage, such as the decorative arts of the Pennsylvania Germans, whose exuberant love of color and decoration is combined with a strong sense of tradition and continuity. This is manifested in a unified visual vocabulary applied to slip-decorated pottery, painted furniture, and richly embellished documents known as fraktur.
Some artworks emerge from institutional environments, such as prisons or schools. The red and blue drawing Devil House, c. 1964-69, by Frank Jones, and the rhythmic, linear drawing Couple with Feet Touching, 1973, by Inez Nathaniel Walker were both created while the artists were in prisons. Still others may indicate a national sense of community and demonstrate an awareness of popular culture or contemporary issues. The two tinted concrete figures by Indian sculptor Nek Chand are early examples of his sculpture made for personal enjoyment. They were never integrated into his secret fantasy environment, the Rock Garden, now a public park in Chandigarh.
The Education Department offers a spectrum of lectures, gallery tours, family programs and school programs in conjunction with the exhibition.
Folk Art Revealed is made possible by leadership support from the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation and major support from the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund. Additional funding has been provided by the Robert Lehman Foundation and by the Jean Lipman Fellows.